A Bit of Taboga Island History
At Cerrito Tropical B&B Hotel we thought our guests would appreciate some of the rich history Taboga Island offers. The following is from various sources and offers a view (we don´t guarantee its 100% authenticity) of Taboga´s past.
Taboga Island (Pop. 1400) and Morro Island (pop. 0):
Isla Morro and Isla Taboga have been strolling throughout history side by side – one cannot mention Isla Morro without making the connection to Isla Taboga. The Islas Taboga group consists of ten main islands and dozens of smaller ones 20km (12 miles) south of Panama City. The largest, Isla Taboga is a mere 571 hectares but boasts a rich history. Isla Morro is connected to Taboga during low tide and is approximately one square hectare.
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered Islas Taboga and Morro in 1513. Taboga was inhabited until 1515 by indigenous Indians who lived in thatch huts and fished for their lively hood. That year the Spaniards sailed to the island to establish a settlement, but as in many areas they first killed or enslaved the Indians and took their gold. The settlement was developed two years after Balboa first sighted the Pacific and before the city of Panama was founded. Taboga island’s original name was ‘Aboga’, which originated from the Indian word meaning “an abundance of fish”. El Morro is Spanish for a rounded hill or promontory.
The Importance of Taboga Bay to Panama´s Development
Isla Taboga and Isla Morro share a bay which was deep enough for the sailing ships to drop anchor and find safe harbor. The City of Panama had no such bay since it was too shallow, therefore ships would use Taboga to drop anchor and if they had business in Panama they would take much smaller craft to the mainland. Another significant factor in the selection of Taboga and Morro as strategic locations for a thriving settlement with an important church, fort, shipyards, and a working harbor, was that fresh water was abundant which was not the case on any of the neighboring islands.
Founding of San Pedro
In 1524 the town of San Pedro was founded by Father Hernando de Luque who built a villa on the island. At that same point Morro began to be developed.
Francisco Pizarro´s Role
An expedition, led by Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almorgo to conquer Peru was financed by Padre Luque. The Spaniards continued to colonize Taboga and had the place to themselves until 1549, when Panama freed its Indian slaves and a number of them chose to make Taboga their home. During that period a fort was built on Isla Morro to protect Taboga and its important bay.
Pirates on Taboga
From the time when the Spaniards settled there, Taboga had little peace. Pirates, including the infamous Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, frequented the island, using the harbor as a base to attack Spanish ships and the town itself, or simply as a place to catch their breath and stock up on supplies between raids. On August 22, 1686 the ship of Captain Townley, who was in command of English and French buccaneers, was in Taboga Bay when it was attacked by three Spanish ships. During the ensuing battle one of the Spanish ships blew up, and Townley’s men were able to confiscate three vessels.
The pirates had taken prisoner a number of Spaniards but lost one man and had 22 wounded, including Townley himself. The buccaneer captain sent a messenger to the President of Panama demanding supplies, the release of five pirates being held prisoner, and ransom for Townley’s many captives. Townley said that heads would roll if his demands weren’t met and when the president ignored the threat by sending only medicine, Townley sent him the severed heads of 20 Spaniards in a canoe. This got the president’s attention, resulting in the release of five prisoners and payment of a large ransom. Townley had won another battle, but he soon died of his wounds on September 9.
Later, during the wars of Independence in Latin America, it was the three cannons on El Morro, manned by 10 Spanish soldiers in 1819, that fought off the attacks of pirate Captain John Illingworth and his party of Chileans. During a second attack, however, the invaders took Taboga, sacked and burned the village, the inhabitants fleeing to the hills. Three of the pirates were killed and buried by the villagers, who marked their graves with wooden crosses which were later replaced. To this day, Taboganos in the vicinity of “Las Tres Cruces” light candles in memory of the three who dared to disturb the peace of their little island.
Many travelers heading to the west coasts of north or south America used Taboga Island and Morro as a safe haven to stay until a ship was leaving for their destination. To service the travelers a number of companies, mostly British and apparently some Dutch, had a full set of services on the “Morrón” (Isla Morro), including a small theater. There was a shipyard with engineers to maintain the boats.
The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company on El Morro
El Morro played an important role in world shipping. The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company of England, which had ships steaming between England and the Pacific ports of South America, extended its route to include Panama. Aware of the abundance of supplies, drinkable water, and general healthy conditions on the island, the company purchased El Morro around 1840. They built workshops, a ship repair facility, supply stores and a coaling station and brought over Irish crews to work in the supply base. The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company consisted of a fleet of twelve vessels used to transport passengers and cargo between Valparaiso, Chile and Isla Taboga.
The California Gold Rush Connection
The completion of the Panama railroad in the middle 1850’s put Pacific Steamship Navigation Company out of business. It was at about this time, too, that the ‘49 ers’ discovered the healthy aspects of Taboga, thousands of the adventurers spent time in boarding houses there, later to head for the California Gold Rush.
Cemetery on El Morro
Isla Morro is the site of a small cemetery at the top which became last resting place for some travelers of the Cruces Trail (heading for the Gold Rush) who “imported” to Taboga deadly fevers uncommon on the tiny island. Plus canal workers who did not survive their convalescence on Taboga were also buried there. A trace of Anglo-Saxon names can still be seen on the fallen tombstones in the cemetery. San Pedro village has its own well kept cemetery in remembrance of families, workers and travelers back centuries.
Seat of Government
During these years, Taboga was the seat of government for all the islands in the Gulf of Panama, including Las Perlas Islands and Taboganos prospered. It was their Golden Age until the Pacific Steamship Company moved their workshops to Callao, Peru.
Today on Isla Morro you can still see remnants of the Pacific Steamship Company building and pier, and from time to time find discover hand-blown bottles bearing the company’s crest.
The Canal Connection
From 1883-84 when the Ferdinand de Lesseps of France tried to build the canal across the isthmus (Panama Railroad Company), Taboga once again became the site for recovering employees when the Compagnie Universelle’s Sanitary Services used the sanitarium for employees who contracted yellow fever or malaria. Some of their employees who did not recover were buried on El Morro.
The famous French painter Paul Gauguin sailed to Panama in 1887. Without money he was forced to work for six months as a laborer excavating today’s Culebra Cut (Panama Canal). During his time in Panama he stayed on Taboga when he considered buying land there when he was hospitalized twice at the French hospital on Taboga.
The sanitarium building was later taken over by the United States in 1905 when they assumed the building of the Panama Canal as a rest and recuperation center for canal workers.
It served this purpose until January 1915, when it became a vacation resort for employees and their families and was known as Hotel Aspinwall.
Aspinwall during World War I
Later during WWI, Aspinwall was converted into an internment camp for German prisoners during World War I.
After the war it was once again a hotel and recreation center and was the hub of Taboga’s social life until 1945. The Aspinwall is now gone but many Panamanians remember it during that by-gone era.
World War II, Taboga and Morro´s Role
During World War II, the U.S. Navy had a “mosquito boat” training base on El Morro and the US Navy used the broad hill on Taboga facing the town for artillery practice. The heroic record of these boats in the Pacific theater of war proved the efficiency of the officers and sailors on El Morro. At that time the US military also installed searchlights, anti aircraft guns and bunkers atop the island which they abandoned in 1960, but the site can still be visited. Today, a modern aerial navigation aid at the top of Picacho del Vigia (Mirador) hill guides all aircraft to the isthmus, and the Panama City airports.